Will somebody tell me why we need net neutrality?

I join the crowd of those totally mystified by the Federal Communications Commission’s plunging headlong into Internet regulation. Sixty percent of the FCC commissioners, that is. I have two objections, one procedural the other substantive.

Tom Temin
Even if you think net neutrality is the best thing since the Princess Phone, the way the commission did its work hardly seems open and transparent. There’s a five-page summary at FCC.gov, but the estimated 300- page order hasn’t been posted. Chairman Tom Wheeler said the commissioners got millions of comments “overwhelmingly … in favor of preserving a free and open Internet.” I doubt they were in favor of regulating the Internet, as if it were the switched- circuit, monopoly telephone service, 1934-style. Then there is the idea of net neutrality itself. One young person who freelances at Federal News Radio simply assumed: Well, the Internet is important, so shouldn’t the government protect it by regulating it? If that’s what the so-called digital natives think, we’re all in trouble. I explained that I remember when a thrilling innovation in telecommunications was installation of an “extension” phone upstairs. Before that, someone would have to run downstairs to answer the phone in the kitchen or front hall. Eventually, we got Touch Tone (on which my friends and I would play melodies until the “tilt” signal emanated from the earpiece). Then came modular jacks so you could replace the tangled cord on a telephone yourself. I also made the analogy to airline service. When it was regulated in the so- called Golden Age you could fly first class, tourist or student fare. Relative to before airline DE-regulation occurred — with the blessing of a Democratic administration — 10 times more people fly at about half to a 10th the cost, inflation and population adjusted. Yes, I know. Planes are crowded and in-flight service stinks. Well, not if you can afford business or first class, especially overseas. You can’t? Neither can I. Get over it. A lot of those West Coast Hollywood and Silicon Valley campaign donors and net-neutrality pushers don’t even fly first class — they fly in private jets. So would you rather put up with eight hours of discomfort on a $1,000 round trip fare to Paris or not go? Or go, but pay the pre- deregulation, inflation-adjusted price of $10,000? This 2013 article from The Atlantic shows just how far those prices have fallen. In 1974, it was illegal for an airline to charge less than $1,442 (inflation adjusted) one way from New York to Los Angeles. You still can talk to elderly people who rush off of long distance phone calls because they have vestigial instincts of when those minutes added up. A 1960s Bell System ad touted only 25 cents a minute on weekends. I recall one GSA official in the 1990s promising that the FTS 2000 contract would get long distance rates to under a nickel at some point in the future. That was when deregulation was still just winding up and before IP telephony, wireless and all the rest. Now a $10 a month landline gives you unlimited long-distance. Ironically, people feared the deregulation of both phones and airlines. But both actions spawned unimaginable innovations. They brought unheard-of products and services to millions. Airlines were deregulated in 1978, the government-sanctioned phone monopoly in 1980. Thirty five years later, and we’re all experiencing an ongoing arms race among carriers, content providers, phone manufacturers and software developers to bring better and faster and more innovative products and services. So what is the problem? Why would the administration push an allegedly independent FCC so hard for the “strongest possible” regulation of something that is such a roaring engine of jobs and wealth and innovation? Who asked the federal government for this? The FCC majority says this is to protect the future openness of the Internet. But you have to question it when any set of regulators gives itself immense power over something unfettered in the name of keeping it unfettered, and promises if won’t use those powers very much in its “modernized, light-touch approach.” As Anton Chekhov is often thought to have said, if there’s a gun on the wall in the first act, in the third act it’s going to go off. The issue isn’t regulation per se. Some things have benefited from regulation. I’ve flown 2 million miles or so in my career. The explosion in air service, planes, traffic — none of it could happen without one of regulation’s great successes. The cooperative arrangement between the FAA, airplane manufacturers, carriers and other responsible parties has produced a logarithmic increase in safety since lumbering, prop-driven airliners ruled the skies. When those planes plowed into one another regularly, they made a good case for new rules and the technology investments to back them up. That sort of regulation doesn’t sound like anything the FCC is selling, with words like “just,” “reasonable,” “addressing concerns” and similar vagary. Ultimately it cites a 1934 law that, 35 years ago, was found to be stifling communications technology and services. Now that law is invoked to box in the greatest communications innovation since moveable type.

Tom Temin is host of The Federal Drive, which airs 6-9 a.m. on Federal News Radio (1500AM). This post was originally written for his personal blog, Temin on Tech.


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